From WTP Vol. V #2
Too Young for World War II
By Stephen Davenport
My brothers and I were too young for World War II, but nevertheless, it seemed very close to us. Our next-door neighbors in Riverside, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound were British. They hosted fighter pilots the Royal Air Force sent across the ocean for a brief respite from the battle of Britain. Each time this happened, my parents invited our neighbors and their guests to Sunday dinner.
On one such Sunday, I watched one of the pilots in his gallant blue uniform, his back to me, sipping his pre-dinner martini while he gazed out the window across our peaceful lawn at sailboats sailing on Long Island Sound. Then he turned and I saw the haunted look in his eyes. He turned quickly back to the window and I, even then, only fourteen years old, was sure he had seen what I had thought. He’s going to die. And for all I know, he did.
My brothers and I were fascinated by fighter planes. Hurricanes, Spitfires, P-40’s were lean and long, like pass receivers; the Grumman Wildcat was short and stocky, a linebacker. We made models of them: thin strips of balsam wood, glued together with airplane glue, which made you dizzy when you sniffed it, covered with tissue paper, which we lacquered with airplane dope to make it hard, like a real plane’s skin, powered by a rubber band. Dressed like soldiers in our Cub Scout uniforms, we took them to den meetings to show them off and earn credit toward our wolf badges.
The next day, we would take them out onto our front lawn, turn the propellers by a finger until the rubber band was wound upon itself as tight as we could turn it, and then we would hold these beautiful, deadly machines above our heads, let go the propeller, and throw them into flight. They were graceful in the air, but they almost never flew straight to where we planned they would land. They’d hit a tree, or circle back to crash into the house, and fall to the ground, or fly away toward Long Island Sound, our English Channel, and drown.
Even when they didn’t hit anything, the landings were never smooth. We’d rush to the downed plane, pick it up gently in our hands, like a bird dogs retrieving, hoping its wounds would not prevent another flight. Often our first aid was insufficient. Back we’d go to the hangar to make repairs. But if a wing had been ripped off, or the rudder, or, having nosedived, the front was crushed all the way back to the cockpit, or if it had crashed upside down to crush the cockpit, we would just leave it there. My oldest brother would be the one to say it: This pilot’s dead.
Our British neighbors also served as surrogate parents to a brother and sister, our age, Oliver and Barbara Morley, from Bournemouth, England. Their parents had sent them across the ocean to escape the nightly bombing. One day, after a big snowstorm, my mother drove us to school because there was too much snow on the road to ride our bicycles. An airplane, flying low, passed over us. I don’t think I even heard it. But Barbara, sitting in the middle of the back seat, hurled herself across my lap, pushed the door open and flung herself face down into the snow.
My mother skidded the car to a stop and turned to me in the backseat. In her big fur coat she looked like a bear. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t ever dare make fun of her.”
I’m sorry,” I said. I’d figured out by then why Barbara had leaped.
“Don’t apologize to me,” my mother said. “Apologize to her. Now get out of the car and help her back in.”
I got out of the car. But why would a fourteen year old need help to stand up?
She stepped past me toward the car. Her face was stone. She got in the car.
“I have a mind to make you walk,” my mother said. I got in the car anyway. Nobody spoke the rest of the way.
Cousin Roland, my dad’s sister’s son, was an artillery officer, fighting his way across France and into Germany. His brother Jack spent the war in the Merchant Marine, surviving a number of Murmansk runs, unlike so many other sailors who went down with, or burned to death on, torpedoed ships, or jumped off to freeze in the thirty-degree water—if they didn’t drown first.
Cousin Warwick, my dad’s brother’s son, was in the intelligence branch, an aide to General Marshall. When one of my father’s friends hadn’t heard from his son, who was in the infantry, my father asked Warwick if he could find out why. I came down the hall a few days later and heard my father say into the phone, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this.” Then my father saw me and put up his hand. So I turned and left and didn’t hear the rest, but I didn’t need to, of course.
We didn’t hear our cousins’ stories until after the war, when they were civilians again, and then only incompletely, after much prodding. We were eager to live vicariously the experiences they would have preferred never to have had. I can still hear the halting reluctance with which Cousin Roland admitted that, yes, he had seen lots of dead people, and how, back in civilian life it seemed strange to attend a funeral for only one person, and how once, in order to shelter his men in the winter in a building they had recaptured, they threw the frozen corpses of German soldiers out the windows and then slept on their beds.
Cousin Jack never did describe what it was like to watch ships in his convoys go down, but he did tell the story of his ship’s being totally dead in the water on a return trip to the United States. There had not been time before the convoy left port to build walls in the ship’s empty holds that would keep the ballast from sliding to one side. Everybody on that ship knew what was probably going to happen—and it did. The seas did get rougher, and the ballast did slide to one side; the ship heeled so far that most of the propeller and rudder came out of the water, stopping all forward motion.
It is not hard to imagine the sense of abandonment my cousin Jack and his shipmates felt watching the convoy continue until it was over the horizon, out of sight. They spent several days exposed to German U-boats, as well as to the potential for even rougher seas to tip it the rest of the way over, shoveling ballast uphill until at last the ship was righted. Still an easy target, against the odds, they returned to New York, unharmed. Cousin Jack seemed incredulous that they had made it safely, that he was still alive—unlike two shipmates, who, cracking under the tension, had jumped off the ship into the ocean and drowned.
I still wonder what my cousins didn’t tell us. And whom were they sparing. Themselves, or us?
Stephen Davenport is the author of two novels, Saving Miss Oliver and No Ivory Tower. He has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Sunday travel section, in The Saturday Review, among others.